5 must-know things about Toronto’s 1981 bathhouse raids

[A man with blood streaming down his face scuffles with police outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto after demonstrators marched there in protest of the bathhouse arrests on Feb. 5, 1981. THE CANADIAN PRESS/UPC/Gary Hershorn]

On Wednesday, Toronto police chief Mark Saunders is reportedly set to apologize for raids on the city’s bathhouses that occurred 35 years ago.

The Feb. 5, 1981, incident publicly humiliated and outed hundreds of men who were arrested. 

While the majority of the charges were eventually dropped, many of the 286 men caught in the raids ended up losing their jobs or being rejected by their families.

Saunders is also expected to apologize during his annual Pride reception for a raid in 2000 on a women’s bathhouse known as Pussy Palace.

Here’s a roundup of five things to know about the historic events, which, over time sparked change within the LGBTQ community.

1. The 1981 raid was prompted by ignorance

Dennis Findlay, president of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, was part of a legal defence committee formed after the raids. He says they were organized as a result of police hating the gay community at a time when it was just starting to emerge in the mainstream.

“We were beginning to establish our role in businesses, we were walking the streets holding hands, we were running for public office,” he tells Yahoo Canada News. “They didn’t like that. They felt they were the deciders of the way social morals should be conducted…they wanted to slap us back into the closet.”

2.  Word of the raids spread quickly, as people took to the streets

Despite it being a time when social media didn’t exist, news of the raids organically spread and activists organized a protest the next day.

“They produced the flyers so quickly, the only thing is said was ‘Rally tonight,’ no date,” Findlay recalls.

Protesters went to the bars to hand out flyers and their efforts paid off. People took to the streets in droves — both gay and straight alike.

3. The protests inspired more activism … and change

The following week, activists planned another rally, which focused on the right to privacy.

“As we became more skilled and capable in our organization, we were able to take on other issues,” Findlay says.

This led to the Arnold Bruner commission, which examined the action of police during the raid. He took police to task, as he found obvious discrimination and homophobia against the gay community.

4. But change didn’t happen overnight

In 2000, Toronto police raided a female bathhouse known as the Pussy Palace. The officers conducted the search on the female patrons, many of whom were nude at the time, claiming they were looking for liquor violations. In 2005, police settled with the women in a civil suit.

5. The judge on the 2000 raid case had ties to the 1981 raids

The judge who heard the case of the women involved in the Pussy Palace raid was named Peter Hryn. Coincidentally, he was one of the 35 lawyers who helped defend the men involved in the 1981 bathhouse raids. He ultimately withdrew the charges in the 2000 case, ruling the women were legally allowed to explore their sexuality in a safe space away from the presence of men.